History of the Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon
The Bagness/Webb Years 1990 – 2004
The focus of this “history” is very much on the organisational aspects of staging an event like a mountain marathon viewed from the perspective of one whose experience of them is that of a lowly marshal. Even “marshal” seems an overstatement – someone who has helped out at half a dozen events. From first contact I became fascinated by the dynamics of something which brings together over a thousand people to some remote area of Lakeland to test themselves in an activity which outside the sport few people know about and if they did would shrug it off as some kind of collective insanity. Collective insanity demands superior organisation and control – God knows what would happen if it spread to the general population!
Tent manufacturer Bob Saunders (1930-2012) started the SLMM in 1978. In that year some attempt was made to organise the event by a committee. It didn’t work out well. This led to Bob approaching Ken Ledward who he had met through Ken’s equipment testing service and asking him to take over running the SLMM. For the next ten years Ken established the event in the fellrunning calendar introducing many of the features that have continued to this day. During his time and the two years that followed under Keith Fazey’s stewardship the SLMM grew in popularity.
When Keith stepped down Bob was introduced to experienced runner and orienteer Martin Bagness by Tony Wale then manager of Silva, UK. Martin knew he could make a go of course planning but he needed help with the overall organisation of the event. In 1987 he planned the Rock and Run Mountain Marathon with Andy Hyslop. A young outdoor instructor Charlotte Webb helping out with the start had a few things to say about the shortcomings of the weekend. She had impressed Martin so much that when he took over the SLMM he quickly invited her to join him in organising it.
Thus began a partnership that lasted 14 years. As with all successful collaborations it was based on mutual respect, trust, understanding and a shared commitment to making the SLMM an enjoyable event. Bob Saunders became the “benevolent benefactor” as Charlotte describes him. With his business in Essex he did not have the time to be involved with the detail of event planning. This allowed Martin and Charlotte the freedom to “get on with it.”
The planning started in January. The big decision was to settle on an event centre. Over the years of their involvement there was a strong tendency to settle on Lakeland’s hubs – Grasmere, Coniston and Langdale all used three times each which were “easily accessible and [had] plenty of parking” as Martin points out. “We would try and move around the Lake District but it’s not that big,” Charlotte recalled. “We had a couple of events in Wasdale and that side but getting competitors to those places could be hard. It made for long days out when Martin and I were planning the event.”
The requirements for mid-camp (which influenced the way Martin planned the courses) were “an agreeable farmer, access for organisers’ vehicles and Bob’s BMW!”
Once these aspects of the race were settled Martin and Charlotte would then divide the rest of its organisation between them. Martin would concentrate on planning the courses and getting permissions while Charlotte gave her attention to all the other aspects – the paperwork, liaising with Bob’s office which collected the entries, ordering the marquee, toilets and catering.
Martin’s approach to planning was determined by two priorities – the route choice for each leg and the desire to keep off the paths and the main walking and fellrunning routes as much as possible. He would try to include controls in some of the remoter locations “corries on the sides of ridges – rather than following the main ridge tops and valleys”. Once he had established all the good route choices of an area he would then link them together to make courses of the right length. Provisional control sites would be chosen at significant mapped features. This was followed by a process of “rationalisation to reduce the number of controls to about 25 so most of them could be manned by Backpackers Club marshals.” In part this was achieved by reversing courses so Scafell/Bowfell day 2 would be similar to Kirkfell/Carrockfell day 1. In June he would visit and place every checkpoint and making final adjustments to the courses.
Charlotte’s priorities were of a different order. Without a great deal of guidance from Bob she based her budget on a rough calculation of the entry fee multiplied by the number of entries and worked within this figure. From that she would pay Martin for the maps and his expenses then cover other aspects. “I had a list which went on year after year. I would get in touch with the mountain rescue people, the toilets, the food, the marquee and organise teams of people to help on the starts and finishes.”
Her first SLMM was a baptism of fire or perhaps more properly water. “The weather was atrocious. Martin had this idea of being a wild event – at the overnight we had two toilets for a thousand people. The first one was just dreadful but after that I got to grip. From there we would see what we could to improve matters to make life easier for ourselves and the competitors.”
The biggest improvement came about through the introduction of information technology. Martin remembers, “Initially all finish times were worked out by a team based in a barn or a tent. This took ages – control cards got lost and mistakes were made. Charlotte was ahead of her time and got a local computer shop to come and do the results – they had to write all the software and there were some glitches on the day, but it was ground-breaking stuff!” That event in 1991 sticks in Charlotte’s memory too. “The change-over wasn’t very smooth…The computers were really slow, didn’t have big memories and everything was very clunky and was going to run out of power after 30 minutes.”
The following year Charlotte contacted Martin Stone who was just starting up his results service. The experience of the previous year focused her mind on what she and Martin (Bagness) wanted from the new technology. Its application led to innumerable improvements. Martin Stone had written some software for providing a results service at fell races and was keen to extend it to Mountain Marathons.
Martin (Stone) explained, “From 1991 to 2003 control cards were checked visually to ensure that all teams had visited the requisite checkpoints on their course. Times for each day were input manually into my results system. From 2004, SPORTident provided an electronic timing system with timing data collected from each checkpoint and results calculated automatically at the finish of each day. It was now possible to provide split times for each leg. From 2008, SiEntries was used to take entries for the SLMM and this eased the burden of admin for Bob Saunders significantly.”
Through electronic control boxes as well as finish times competitors were given split times between controls. It saw the introduction of a different start procedure on Sunday. (The chasing start) In addition it enhanced the safety of the event. Boxes could be interrogated should any teams fail to turn up. Previously a no show would necessitate hours of trawling through lists and stubs.
Safety had always been covered by members of the Backpackers Club who manned the checkpoints. With dibbers and control boxes their role changed. “Less of them were needed but they are still invaluable because their presence out on the fell still provided an important safety aspect,” Charlotte explained.
On the weekend of the event itself Martin and Charlotte would bring in a (“surprisingly”) few helpers and supporters to ensure its smooth running. Thanks to Charlotte’s involvement with Wilf’s Events Catering she knew that side of things was taken care of. Friday evening registration was one of her innovations which eased pressure on Saturday morning. “You needed five people on that task” More on Saturday – one person per class. Martin would sort out a start team. At the overnight you might need a couple of people.” All this was voluntary effort. “There were a few people who would help stoically year on year but nothing was paid…I would involve people by giving them free entries if they had helped on the previous event or had helped with the car parking.”
Martin decided to finish after the 2004 event “Things went well for a number of years in succession but it became less and less interesting to plan and organise. The event needed some fresh enthusiasm!” Charlotte oversaw the transition period when Mark Hawker came in as planner. She was finding the business with Wilf’s events and then café was taking up more and more of her time. “I was now having to organise the Saunders in my free time and it was not what I wanted to do in my free time.” Secure in the knowledge the event had been handed on to a safe pair of hands she retired from the SLMM after the2006 event.
So closed a remarkable era. Martin Bagness and Charlotte Webb had built on the firm foundation laid down by Ken Ledward to establish the SLMM as popular and enjoyable event in the race calendar. They were at the forefront in using computer technology to improve its organisation and provide a better service for the competitors. “I would like to think people enjoyed the course – getting off the beaten track and finding new corners of the Lakes – with some fair but interesting navigation. Charlotte’s organisation and catering certainly created a good and distinctive atmosphere at the finish. No single memory stands out – just a blur of (generally) sunny Sundays with runners streaming into the finish then crashing out on the grass eating Wilf’s Café stew.”